The cost of improper use of technology in the workplace
Take a moment to think about how many times you pick up your phone each day. If you have a monitoring feature or app, you may be able to see the exact breakdown of when and how you use your device. It’s possible that you will be surprised by how many hours you spend on your phone each day. Unfortunately for business owners, employees are often just as guilty of spending hours on their phone – during paid work hours.
A recent survey shows that UK employers are paying every employee almost £9000 to chat, scroll through social media, other websites and apps annually. The survey established that employees are spending over two hours per day on tasks unrelated to their jobs. That equates to over 25% of a typical working week being spent not working. This figure doesn’t consider any time spent on ‘pseudo-work’ – the time spent chatting on work messaging systems or other inefficient uses of official software. Employees can’t be expected to perform efficiently and consistently for every moment of the day, but these figures should provide cause for concern in many workplaces.
What happens when staff aren’t working at work? Absolute productivity drops, but there are also losses that aren’t as easy to quantify. Highly distracted staff may lose focus more easily and have trouble concentrating for long periods. Intra-staff messaging services and team sharing spaces can become sources of distraction and socialising rather than focused work discussion. The integration of social media into the workday may encourage employees to risk sharing confidential information to contacts or accidentally record sensitive data.
It might start with smartphones, but it certainly doesn’t end there. When staff have access to a work computer each day, it’s easy to forget that they are not personal devices. Employees have reported doing online shopping, browsing and even viewing illegal or improper material on company property. Legalities aside, visiting unnecessary sites may increase the risk of malware infiltrating the company network.
It paints a dire picture, doesn’t it? Realistically, very few workplaces are going to be able to eliminate time wasted on personal devices completely. It would almost certainly demand a complete ban of those devices in the workplace, and there are indications that employees are more likely to ignore that limit than abide it.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to help reduce the lost time at work. There are three different angles you can look at to help keep employees on task. Some changes can be done structurally by the IT team. Behavioural and cultural changes at work can help to refocus staff, and finally a review of company policy can help underline the importance any changes and set expectations for new employees.
Here’s a list of things you can do to help reduce the negative influences of technology at work.
1. Block certain sites
If there are some websites that appear to get a lot of attention on your internal networks, then consider blocking access to them. Sometimes prevention is better as it removes the temptation and should hopefully redirect staff back to tasks. If you’re unsure about how to do that, connect with your IT support team. They will be able to provide support and further information about how to protect your business from inappropriate online activity. This may go beyond a standard blacklisting of known illegal or problematic sites and extend to video hosting platforms, for example.
2. Use the tech to help stay on task
Many individual apps and some smart devices have options to limit how long it can be used within 24 hours, or if notifications are displayed or make sound. Some can inactivate the device except for nominated, necessary apps. These artificial boundaries can also be useful to limit response times to specific windows. Some staff find it beneficial to restrict communications to specific times to ensure they are operating on their own schedule and not being constantly distracted and responding to other interruptions.
3. Programs to monitor quality of remote work
Remote work is growing in popularity for companies. It has a lot of benefits for both employers and staff, but it does come with risk, especially if the staff member is on an hourly wage rather than a piece rate. There are a lot of distractions at home, and sometimes it may not matter, if the work is completed on time. For workers that bill by the hour, it may be worth installing a screen monitoring program on a work device. These can capture screenshots periodically during work hours. It introduces a higher level of accountability, but there are privacy concerns associated with this that we will cover in the section below.
4. Set the standard
As the owner, manager or department leader you set the tone for your team. Model the behaviour that you expect to see from your employees. If you are constantly accessible by email, use your phone during meetings or post on social media then your staff will interpret that as tacit permission to do the same.
5. Set clear limits
Even useful tech like staff messaging apps can be used to waste time. Be clear about the reasons staff use different software and if there are any limits around when they should be used, or for how long.
6. Time management habits
There are plenty of workplace philosophies that focus on how to efficiently manage time spent in the workplace. It is beneficial to apply these principles to staff tech use, too. Being deliberate about app use and developing firm habits can help. Consider the culture of your workplace when offering time management ideas to your staff. Some offices may benefit from scheduled downtime where internal messaging systems are disabled to encourage focussed work, but this won’t work everywhere. Remember there is often a divide between what (feels) urgent and what is genuinely important.
7. Devices in meetings
In most workplaces, there should be no reason for devices to be checked during meetings. Ask all participants to turn off audible notifications and leave their devices in a pocket, bag or otherwise off the table. It’s a simple idea but it helps to keep staff present in the meeting so that they are more useful to all involved.
8. Develop the ability to concentrate for long periods
Smartphones and social media have contributed to our shorter attention spans. They are designed to continually distract and engage. This sometimes influences our ability to concentrate on other tasks for longer periods of time. While office spaces are prone to distraction, carving out uninterrupted time regularly can help retrain focus for longer periods. The Pomodoro technique is a popular solution, where a person sets aside 20 minutes to concentrate on a single task. When the time expires, a 5- or 10-minute allowance is made for stretching, chatting or scrolling before returning for another 20-minute effort. Employees report that attempting this structure can help extend their attention spans over time, but this is just one way to extend focus, there are many popular methods available.
9. Clarify expectations
Sometimes staff can lose sight of the overall goals of the organisation and department. Remind them of the expectations and measurable outcomes. Regularly communicating the goals and expectations can help to keep everyone focussed and prioritise how time is spent in the office.
10. Reward focussed employees with targets and bonuses
Use incentives to encourage staff to stay focussed at work. There are many ways to measure productivity – the screen capture technology mentioned above is one way but there are others. Rewarding excellent behaviour publicly can encourage other staff to reach for the same rewards.
11. Boundaries out of work
Every workplace is different, but it’s becoming common for work to follow staff home, particularly if work devices are used. Turn it off or set the expectation that emails do not need to be responded to unless in work hours. Discourage using work devices for personal activities so it can help keep the separation between the two spaces.
12. When inappropriate use of tech means breaking company property
Sometimes, inappropriate use of technology refers to the physical items themselves rather than the software on the device. Provide protective casings for mobile devices and policies about safe use and maintenance. Of course, sometimes accidents do happen, and devices are damaged or broken. If an item is damaged through regular wear and tear or genuine accident the employer is typically expected to replace it at their cost. This also applies to fixed technology like desktop computers or printers.
Employees are only typically expected to pay or responsible for any negligent or malicious damage. The employment contract should outline the company position and responsibilities. Unless there is a specific clause stating so in the employment contract, an employer may not deduct the replacement cost from the employee’s wages.
Where do ethics and privacy concerns enter into monitoring and accountability?
This is a bit of a grey area. Individuals may expect a level of privacy in the workplace, but ultimately if they are using work devices and work networks(including mobile data paid for by the company) then there is usually an expectation that the activities can be tracked or at least monitored. Be sure to make this clear at induction or when a policy like this is implemented. While types of monitoring can vary, remember that invasive monitoring can destroy or erode trust between the company and individuals. It’s usually far more beneficial to tread lightly but deliberately rather than press for more information than is reasonable.
There are ongoing discussions about how much an employer can access personal social media accounts. This topic is still being navigated, but there are some general guidelines. Some employers will monitor publicly available accounts to verify sick leave claims, for example, but it’s generally not acceptable to comb employees accounts – they are entitled to reasonable amounts of privacy. That said, employers are also entitled to monitor employee social media use if the organisation is at risk or negative impact.
Considering that the focus of this article is about productivity rather than data security, the posts or contributions of interest may not be inspected for content but rather the time stamps of the posts. Seeing frequent activity during typical work hours may be cause for a discussion, for example. As mentioned above, the expectation must be set with staff from the outset that light or infrequent monitoring may occur. This is considered acceptable.
Screen capture software can help to keep remote staff accountable as discussed but there are relevant privacy concerns associated with them. The aim of this technology is to ensure work is being conducted, not to disclose how staff spend their time when they are procrastinating. Periodic screen captures may capture private or sensitive information. Staff should have the power to delete these types of images while still noting that the time was spent off-task.
Where to from here
Employees have dawdled at the water cooler since time immemorial. After all, no one can be expected to work productively all day every day. The difficulty lies in just how much easier it is to lose time to social media and other online interruptions than to any other type of distraction. It’s a quiet activity that may go unnoticed, but short bursts of time are clearly adding up to hours a day of wasted efforts. Online shopping, browsing and social media feeds are common culprits but remember they are not the only ones. You and your IT team can do a lot to influence the productivity culture of the workplace.
If you have any questions on the above please do contact us, we’re here to help!